The biggest surprise for this painter from the Matisse show were the surfaces of the paintings. They were amazingly distressed, with cracking, scratching, gouging and much obvious changes of form. This was particularly noticeable in the best paintings in the show, which were medium sized (3ft by 4ft), in which he had used black extensively. These were dark interiors, with goldfish bowls, or views out of the shutters to the heat outside; my favourite painting was Interior with a Violin which could easily pass for a figure, reclining in a darkening room, a sultry presence in the late afternoon. Richard Diebenkorn later turned these scrubbings and erasures into things of beauty in the Ocean Park series, but Matisse appears ruthless in comparison. This of course goes to the nub of the show, his swinging changes of course during the development of an image. Choosing the various versions of each picture must have been a curator’s dream and makes for a fascinating show (though I wonder if Lydia Delectorskaya elsewhere recorded his painting process, as this show focuses on photos of the paintings in progress rather than his facture). It demonstrates that Matisse was always possessed of a remarkable raison d’être, was engaged in meaningful and purposeful action over many decades, dispelling any reputation as a nervous ditherer.
To further examine Matisse use of black, I went to MoMA to see The Moroccans, an acknowledged masterpiece. This is an extraordinary picture where he sacrificed everything to achieve a balance between the alarming pink, the sky blue and the black, which exude a decorative harmony. Is this what Motherwell meant by his brilliance with colour, where black wasn’t just tone, but hue? It is clear to me the constant reworkings were to realise THE IMAGE, which becomes unforgettable. So he
could describeThe Dream (1940) as “becoming an angel resting on a violet halo”, as though he were equally surprised by its other-worldly attributes. As with Diebenkorn in the Ocean Park series, perhaps subsequent painters like Milton Avery took the ethereal beauty in his pictures, but forgot the surgeon Matisse, so ruthless with his scalpel. The extraordinarily vicious wracking he gave his pictures was no “belle peinture” – his mind, eye and brush were like a blowtorch, his medium bitumen. Nevertheless the works looked so fresh and hallucinatory in effect, they could have been painted yesterday.